Home National News British bombers pulled off a raid on the other side of the planet in the UK’s first major conflict since World War II

British bombers pulled off a raid on the other side of the planet in the UK’s first major conflict since World War II

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British bombers pulled off a raid on the other side of the planet in the UK’s first major conflict since World War II

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Royal Air Force Avro 698 Vulcan B2 bomber

A Royal Air Force Avro Vulcan bomber at an air show in the UK in June 1980.Reading Post/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

  • After Argentina seized the Falklands in April 1982, the British began planning to retake them.

  • Planning was complicated by the vast distances between the Falklands and British bases.

  • So the British air force devised an ambitious but complex plan for long-range bomber raids.

On the night of April 30, 1982, two British Royal Air Force bombers and 11 tanker aircraft assembled on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic.

Twenty-eight days earlier, Argentina had seized the Falkland Islands, a British territory long claimed by Buenos Aires. Within days, the British dispatched a naval task force to retake the islands.

The British aircraft, meanwhile, were about to set out on the RAF’s first contribution to the war effort — an ambitious operation that involved flying more than 6,600 miles to attack Argentine targets in what would be one of the longest bombing raids in history.

A daring plan

British troops surrender in Falklands War

British troops surrender to Argentine forces in Port Stanley in April 1982.Rafael WOLLMANN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

After Argentina seized the Falklands, British air force leaders believed it would be mostly up to the task force, comprising more than 100 ships and 15,000 troops from the British navy and army, to recapture the islands some 8,000 miles from the UK.

Sir Michael Beetham, chief of the air staff and acting chief of the defense staff, was concerned about the security of the task force, however.

Conscious of the need to strike back quickly, Beetham devised a plan, codenamed Operation Black Buck, for the RAF to knock out the airport in the Falklands’ capital, Port Stanley, in one of the first military actions of the campaign.

Port Stanley Falkland Islands war Argentina

Argentine forces at Port Stanley in April 1982.Rafael WOLLMANN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The airport was the center of gravity for the occupation. Argentina used it to fly in troops and supplies regularly, and there were concerns the runway could be extended to operate fast jets like the A-4 Skyhawk, allowing those jets to fly farther into the Atlantic and threaten the British task force directly.

The RAF tasked its Avro Vulcans and Handley Page Victors, two legs of its V-bomber force, with the mission.

A single Avro Vulcan would fly from Ascension Island — the British base closest to the Falklands — and drop a full load of 21 1,000-pound unguided bombs on the runway. Subsequent missions would target the runway, Argentine radar installations, and Argentine aircraft and supplies nearby.

To get to Port Stanley and back, the Vulcans would need to be refueled by Victors that had been converted into tankers — no easy feat over the remote South Atlantic.

Logistical issues

RAF Vulcan bomber on Ascension Island

An RAF Vulcan bomber at Wideawake airfield on Ascension Island.Royal Air Force

The plan was rife with difficulties, starting with the aircraft themselves.

The Vulcans were introduced in 1956 and many had been retired by the time of the war. They had also been re-assigned from strategic bombing missions with large nuclear weapons to missions against conventional targets, like military bases, using smaller tactical nuclear weapons. As a result, the bombers had their aerial-refueling probes removed.

The four Vulcans assigned to the raids were reequipped with refueling probes taken from bombers that were in storage and, in some cases, in museums.

The crews, who had no aerial-refueling experience and hadn’t done conventional bombing drills in a decade, spent two weeks learning to refuel from tankers and other newly pertinent skills, including how to attack enemy air defenses with anti-radiation missiles. (The normally five-man crews also received an extra member to oversee the in-flight refueling.)

British Royal Air Force Victor tanker

Victor tanker aircraft conduct air-to-air refueling.Royal Air Force

The preparations revealed other problems. During the drills, refueling probes sometimes broke apart or spilled fuel onto the Vulcan’s windscreen. The Martel anti-radiation missile was found to be unreliable. The RAF also discovered that it had no maps of the South Atlantic.

The probe problems were solved through training and by adding reserve tankers. A spare Vulcan also accompanied the main bomber at the outset of the mission in case something went wrong.

The Martels were swapped for US-made AGM-45 Shrikes, which were secretly supplied to the UK. The map issue was resolved by flipping a Mercator chart of the North Atlantic upside down.

The RAF also came up with a complex aerial-refueling schedule involving 11 Victors flying in waves to refuel the Vulcan on its outbound and return legs. During the roughly 14-hour journey, the bomber and the tankers refueled 14 times, according to the RAF. Most of the calculations about when and how much to refuel were done using a simple pocket calculator.

The Black Buck raids

British RAF air force Avro Vulcan bomber

An Avro Vulcan bomber during a training mission.PA Images via Getty Images

Black Buck One took off from Ascension the night of April 30. Shortly after takeoff, the lead Vulcan had to return because a seal leak prevented its cabin from pressurizing. The backup Vulcan approached Port Stanley early on May 1. It was picked up by Argentine radar and activated its jamming pod before dropping 21 bombs, 16 of which exploded.

The Vulcan then turned for Ascension, trailed by Argentine anti-aircraft gunfire. The next day, the RAF learned that only one bomb had made a direct hit, leaving behind a massive hole in the runway.

Black Buck Two took place on May 3. With the Argentines now alert, the Vulcan had to drop its bombs from a higher altitude to avoid anti-aircraft fire. The bombs missed the airfield but did wound several Argentine troops.

Black Buck Three was scheduled for May 13 but was canceled because of strong headwinds off Ascension. Black Buck Four, the first mission targeting Argentina’s TPS-43 air-defense radar, was cancelled five hours after taking off on May 28 because a refueling hose on one of the Victors malfunctioned.

Black Buck Five was launched on May 31. The Vulcan carried four Shrikes and its mission was timed to coincide with a flight of Harriers from the task force’s carriers. The Harriers were meant to be picked up by the TPS-43, ensuring the radar remained online so the anti-radiation missiles could home in on it.

Port Stanley Falklands War

The military airstrip at Port Stanley after a British air raid in May 1982.REUTERS/Eduardo Farre

But the Argentines turned on the radar on and off, forcing the Vulcan to loiter for about 30 minutes to get a lock on the target. It then launched two Shrikes. One missed, but the other caused light damage to the radar.

Black Buck Six came three days later, alongside another Harrier flight. This time, the Argentines kept the TPS-43 off. The Vulcan crew attacked a Skyguard air-defense system instead, locking onto its fire-control radar. The bombers launched two Shrikes, destroying the radar and killing four Argentine soldiers.

But Black Buck Six didn’t make it home. While taking on fuel, the Vulcan’s refueling probe broke, forcing it to head for the nearest airfield, which was in Brazil. Before arriving, the crew dumped their maps and codebooks into the sea and tried to jettison their two remaining Shrikes to hide the fact that the US had supplied them, but one malfunctioned and remained attached to the aircraft.

The Vulcan’s crew initially didn’t want to divulge their origin or destination, leading the Brazilians to deny them permission to land. After an intense back and forth, the Brazilians allowed the bomber to land in Rio de Janeiro. It touched down without enough fuel left to make a full circuit of the airport. Argentina wanted to take the crew as prisoners of war, but the Brazilians released them after seven days, though they did confiscate the US-made Shrike.

Black Buck Seven was launched on June 12, targeting Argentine aircraft and supplies still at Port Stanley. All 21 bombs missed, but Argentina surrendered two days later.

Aftermath

British Royal Marines Port Stanley Falkland Islands war

Royal Marines with the Falkland Islands flag in Port Stanley after the Argentine surrender in June 1982.Royal Navy/Imperial War Museums via Getty Images

The RAF considered the Black Buck raids a success.

Argentina was unable to extend the runway at Port Stanley — though its C-130s were still able to land with supplies and to evacuate its wounded — and the TPS-43 was put out of action, although only temporarily.

The raids may have had greater symbolic and psychological impact than practical effect, demonstrating British resolve and showing that they could strike targets in Argentina, which forced the Argentines to redeploy Mirage III fighters to protect Buenos Aires.

Royal Air Force Red Arrows Vulcan bomber

RAF Aerobatic Team jets with a Vulcan bomber in September 2015.Royal Air Force/Cpl. Steve Buckley

At the time, the Black Buck raids were the longest-range bombing operations in history, beating Japan’s Fu-Go balloon bombs during World War II. But the record was soon eclipsed.

US B-2 stealth bombers flew missions of 30 hours or longer to bomb targets in Iraq and the Balkans in the 1990s and a 44-hour mission to bomb targets in Afghanistan in 2001.

The record lasted much longer than the Vulcans, however. Six months after their first and only combat mission, they were relieved of their bombing role for good.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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